Frankly, because I studied in France for a year, I sympathize with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government has passed a law against women wearing the niqab in public. (The niqab is a total face covering, as distinguished from the hijab, which refers to the entire head-to-toe garment.) Belgium instituted a similar ban this summer and Italy, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland are preparing legislation. The proposed laws are a gesture to preserve a culture—or the appearances of a culture—which until recently characterized Western Europe. Turkey, a conservative Muslim country, prohibits public servants from wearing the niqab or the hijab.
The presence of the black-robed figure covered from head to foot with nothing visible but two eyes is open to a whole range of interpretations. As Reza Aslan makes clear in No god but God, the veil was not prescribed by Muhammed, but was worn in several civilizations long before him. To Lord Cromer, the British general consul to Egypt at the end of the 19th century, the veil symbolized “the degradation of women,” proof of the failure of Islamic civilization. To an Iranian political philosopher Ali Shariati the veil represented female chastity, piety and defiance of the Western image.
When we meet the veiled woman on the streets of Jersey City—I’ve seen hardly any in Manhattan—we wonder what she is trying to say to us. “Out of my way, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Don’t try to talk to me.” “My husband makes me wear this. He sees me as his property.” “I just like my privacy.” It is difficult to not interpret it as defiance or at least rejection of one’s surroundings.
Unfortunately the law has had unintended consequences in France. The Guardian tells the story of Stephanie, a convert to Islam at 17, whose marriage ended because her in-laws did not like her wearing the veil. She was arrested for swimming wearing a niqab, but the prosecutor let her go. Now people greet her with swear words and sexual insults. Rachid Nekkaz, a French businessman, personally opposes wearing the veil, but he leads an association against outlawing it in all public places other than government buildings.
Two years ago when I was teaching at Saint Peter’s College I passed a woman in the hallway so robed that even her eyes were only barely visible. I asked myself what I would do if she enrolled in my class. I already had several decorum rules which, for me, affect the quality of classroom interaction. For those 50 minutes, class is a formal encounter. Our discussion of the readings demands all our attention. So: no hats or hoods, no cell-phones, no eating or drinking, no taking out your cosmetics kit to do your eyes or nails. There is a kind of teaching where the professor just stands up there and tells the students what they should know and sends them home. What one wears—or even whether one is there—doesn’t matter.
As I see it, a school and a classroom are, or should be, communities. I would no more welcome a veil on a woman than I would a ski-mask on a man. The mask says you are hiding, you don’t want to be a member. Jesuit educational principles call upon the teacher to know the students well. They call it cura personalis, caring for the person. If I’m going to teach you, I have to know you—see you light up, smile, resist or frown. At least I have to see your face.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.